Three black men walking through a park
CommentaryBlack Boys & Men

The Pastor, the Scout Leader, and the School Principal: How three Black men showed me how to be a man

Feb 23, 2024
Frederick J. Riley

I was eleven years old when I met my father for the first time. It was many more years before he became an important figure in my life. During the critical formative years of my upbringing, my twin brother and I were primarily under the care of our mother, Ruth Riley.

By the standard metrics of social scientists we were at a huge disadvantage. Our family lived well below the federal poverty line. We were often short on food. The power went out regularly because bills weren’t paid. We were awakened too many times to remember by heavy knocking on the door and a court employee yelling “Eviction Notice!” 

Research shows clearly that kids who grow up in poverty and harsh neighborhoods are more likely to end up dead, in jail, or trapped in intergenerational poverty. And yet my brother and I have thrived. I have thought a lot about why this is. What enables some young men of color to thrive, while others get buried by the social burdens they were born into and don’t deserve? Why did we succeed instead of getting buried?

The short answer for me is: our mother. The slightly longer answer is: our mother, three Black men, and a caring community. 

Black Mom magic

Fredrick Riley standing behind his mother at an event.

Frederick Riley with his mother Ruth Riley

Ruth Riley had an unwavering dedication to make sure we didn’t succumb to the many traps that ensnare so many young black men. That meant fighting for us all through our childhoods. And that meant fighting with us too. 

I vividly recall finishing the third grade, excited about the prospect of a carefree summer. My mother had a different plan. She had already met with our fourth-grade teachers to find out what we would be learning the next year. Instead of allowing us to idle away the summer months, we spent our summer days working on multiplication tables, reading newspapers, and writing summaries of articles. We read books and then discussed them.

While our friends played outside, we were at the table, studying. My mother didn’t have a label for what she was doing, but she was working to prevent the “summer slide,” where students, particularly those in elementary and middle school, lose some of the academic progress from the last year during the summer break. Without realizing it, she was solving a problem that has plagued schools in poor neighborhoods for years. 

My mother was also strict when it came to giving us a moral education. She established a set of rules and standards that governed our behavior. She instilled values that would guide us on our journey and give us an unyielding determination to succeed. She had a litany of things we were forbidden to do, like show disrespect to adults and fight with other kids or each other. 

I even remember her threatening to “kill you before allowing the streets to have you.” My twin brother and I never really believed her, but we didn’t want to test her. Those extreme-sounding threats demonstrated her determination to keep us out of trouble and on the narrow path to safety and success.

My mother was undeniably stricter with us than she was with our sisters. She knew that as Black boys, we would face harder challenges in a racist, inequitable society. That’s where the rules came in. We made our beds daily. We had to wear collared shirts to elementary school, earning us the nickname of “the collar boys.” We had dinner as a family 5 nights a week, discussed our day and week, and learned to show deference to each other and opposing opinions.  

Monday evenings were reserved for the junior laymen’s mentoring group at our church, Tuesdays for piano lessons, Wednesdays for school clubs, and Thursdays for Boy Scouts. This routine not only kept us out of trouble, but also provided us with guidance and support from mentors who looked like us—essential for our identity development.

Those rules, structure, and schedules have become my lifelong companions, giving me comfort and direction through the ups and downs that inevitably strike us as we grow. I wake before dawn every day, head to the gym, catch up on the news, and spend serious time making sure my clothes are cleaned and pressed. There are always at least a few books and research reports lined up for the day. And as I head to the office – and yes, I like that habit even if it’s no longer expected daily – you will find me most days dressed in my elementary school “mother-imposed uniform” of collared shirts and slacks. I’m a collar boy to this day.

My mother knew years before research showed it, that “identity development” was important. That’s the process by which we form and define our sense of self. Without a father in my early life, I needed other male figures who looked like me and gave me something to aspire to. So she ensured I had positive role models who could steer me toward a brighter future.

Three Black men showing the way

A collage of Louis Skipper, Reverend Roosevelt Austin, and Robert Brewer

Louis Skipper (left), Robert Brewer (center), and Reverend Austin (right)

Louis Skipper was my elementary school principal. He was the first Black man I ever saw wearing a jacket and tie to work. I could feel his sense of self-respect. To this day, I pay attention, perhaps even more than I should, to the clothes I wear and how I look. I’m still aspiring to be Mr. Skipper, with his confident, professional image. 

Robert Brewer was a respiratory therapist and our Boy Scout troop leader. He embodied what, in my youthful eyes, was the epitome of the American dream. He and his wife both enjoyed successful careers, raised two sons, contributed to the community, and lived in a picturesque home with a white picket fence. I yearned to achieve my own piece of the American dream, just like he had.

Reverend Roosevelt Austin, my pastor, held a special place in my heart. His words from the pulpit and in conversation commanded attention. He was universally loved and respected. As a youth usher, I eagerly vied for the spot near the door through which “Reverend” would emerge from his study into the sanctuary. Our brief exchanges meant everything to me as a child. He was the first person who told me I could be someone important one day. 

These men, along with others, left an indelible mark on my identity. I didn’t idolize sports figures or celebrities; instead, I looked up to these men. It wasn’t clothing or money or a nice house that made them important. They were people with high standards, strict morals, strong aspirations, kindness, and a passion for serving others. 

My Mission: Boys of color

Fredrick Riley and his brother in Boy Scout uniforms.

Young Frederick Riley with his brother Patrick Riley

Because of them, I have made it my life’s mission to support the positive trajectory of young people, especially black and brown youth. In 2008, I had the privilege of serving as the executive director of the Cahokia Area YMCA, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there that I started a journey that would shape my career and my convictions on how to help young men of color.

At the YMCA, I developed a mentoring program aimed at boys and young men. We knew boys would come to the YMCA every day after school and pay a modest fee to play basketball all evening long. I wondered how we could make them as disciplined about their lives as they were about basketball. My idea was to offer them free memberships and a free dinner a couple of nights a week, as long as they attended some peer support sessions and life coaching classes. 

Of course, it wasn’t my idea at all. I was mirroring the structured path that my mother had set and which had made so much difference in my life.

That mentoring program was my lab for discovering the right formula, the ideal journey, to guide a young person, and especially a boy of color, over obstacles and toward success. I learned from those boys. My resilience grew with theirs, even through tragedy. 

That summer, four of the young men from our program lost their lives—three to senseless violence and one in a car accident while heading off to college, a college we had all toured together. When you take on the mantle of responsibility for youth development, you never get to take it off again. After the tragedies, I was tormented by thoughts of what more I might have done. Honestly, that burden is one I carry to this day.

In 2013, I left Cahokia for Chicago to join the YMCA of the USA. My role for the national YMCA was dedicated to helping Y’s around the country create the right circumstances and foster a local culture in which young people could thrive. During my time there, I found that the recipe for youth development is universal. Whether in one zip code or another, all young people require the same physical, cognitive, and social-emotional journey to get to a successful adulthood. They all need the same roadmap. 

Filling in the Roadmap

Over the years, I’ve also dived into the research and scholarly journals and pored over data on youth development and success. I’ve found three essential elements for guiding the lives of young men, particularly those from communities where life’s roadmap is incomplete. These three elements are not profound, groundbreaking discoveries. They were the cornerstones of my own upbringing.

First and foremost, academic preparedness is crucial. My mother was unwavering in her commitment to ensuring that my brother and I were prepared for school. Second, she instilled in us a set of standards for daily living, strict rules, and strong moral values. Finally, she insisted on providing us with role models who could shape our identity development. These three elements, coupled with determination and a touch of luck, have paved the way for my success.

My brother went on to serve our country as a member of the United States Marine Corps. He has been decorated for his service and is now a devoted husband and father to my two beautiful nieces. As for myself, I currently serve as the executive director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute, where I have the privilege of supporting community leaders across the country, and I am a Board member here at the American Institute for Boys and Men.

The Power of Community

There’s an additional lesson that I have come to fully recognize since I joined the Weave project.
Looking at my upbringing through the lens of our individualistic culture, it is easy to say that my mother, or the three male role models, made all the difference for me. Yes… and no. No mother or father, no mentor or role model, can fill in the roadmap for a successful life themselves. My brother and I succeeded because people all around showed up for us again and again.

We didn’t have much growing up in Saginaw, Michigan. But we had community, where folks cared for each other. It included family and friends, women as well as men. When food was scarce at our table, family and neighbors shared what they had. Sharon Smith, my fifth-grade teacher, was the first to tell me I had potential. But more importantly, she drove me to take the entrance test for a gifted and talented program, paid the exam fee, and waited in the parking lot until I was done. Sharon Floyd, my high school English teacher, recognized that college wasn’t a rite of passage for someone like me, but a foreign culture, and sent reassuring notes with $50 tucked inside so I wouldn’t feel different from the other kids. 

Every young person, regardless of their background, deserves the opportunities I had—academic excellence, a strong moral compass, and a tight, caring community. These are key parts of the roadmap that leads to a fulfilling life. For Black boys, in particular, it is often hard to envision the destination we seek. And that’s where positive role models come in. They show us the journey is worth it. To those three wise men from my childhood, Mr. Brewer, Principal Skipper, and Rev. Austin, all I can say is: Thank you. 

Frederick J. Riley is the Executive Director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute.
Frederick J. Riley
Executive Director, Weave: The Social Fabric Project
Fred currently leads Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute. He's a community development expert, having spent almost 2 decades ensuring the positive life trajectory for youth with a focus on urban, under-served communities and poverty. He previously served in leadership positions across the YMCA network and for the National Conference of Black Mayors.